(The story about Jerry Solomon’s death reminded us of a good friend of his, Johnny Carson. This account is from the Gazette archives.)
News of Ed McMahon’s death this week brought back a flood of memories of Ed, the ultimate sidekick, and his boss, Johnny Carson, who entertained America for over 30 years.
I didn’t know Ed McMahon, other than as a fan of the Tonight Show, and Star Search — and I always hoped he’d call with a big check from Publishers’ Clearing House. That never happened. But Johnny Carson was from Norfolk, near Plainview, where I grew up, and I always felt a certain kinship with him because of the proximity of our hometowns, in Northeast Nebraska.
While I was still in high school the Plainview Chamber of Commerce had a banquet, which I attended with my Dad. There was a speaker, who bored us greatly with business statistics, but fortunately, the Chamber had also hired a young fellow who entertained us with magic tricks and quips. The Great Carsoni (alias Jack Carson from Norfolk) had the crowd gasping at his sleight of hand tricks and laughing with him over his one-liners, and jokes about some of Plainview’s bigwigs at the head table. He saved the evening and made it memorable.
The next time I saw Carson was at the University of Nebraska, after the war. He had served in the Navy during World War II and was attending school on the GI Bill of Rights. It didn’t take long for him to make a name for himself at the U. In those days one of the highlights of the school year was a big production called “The Co-ed Follies.” This was an all-male revue, with most of the skits involving “men in drag” playing women roles. Many of these “cuties” were football players or wrestlers, and their attempts to emulate the Rockettes in dance and song, were fun to watch.
These productions were well staged, and supervised by the people in the Theater Department, with music written or arranged by Music Majors, including Jerry Solomon. But what made the show special was Jack Carson, who acted as Emcee for the event. He did a few magic tricks (his specialty in those days), but his jokes about campus life, the professors, the city politicians (no one was safe) were hilarious, and much appreciated by the audience. Tickets for these Follies productions were highly prized, since each show was a sellout.
On campus Carson was popular, but he seemed to be a regular fellow — a nice guy. At that time I held a part-time job in downtown Lincoln, as a week-end elevator operator. Carson worked part-time for KFAB, whose headquarters was in that building. Carson sometimes stopped for a minute for a little chat. I also had a class with the girl who became Carson’s first wife. She was pretty, and friendly and they seemed to be the ideal All-American couple. (Unfortunately, marriage was difficult for Johnny Carson. He was married four times — to Joan, the mother of his three sons, Joanne, Joanna — he said he kept the names almost the same so that he would not have to change the monogrammed towels. Finally, at age 62, he married Alexis, age 36, to whom he was married at the time of his death.)
At Nebraska, Carson’s Masters Thesis covered the broad aspects of Comedy. It was published and has become something of a classic on the subject, a “must” book for both serious students of Comedy and budding Comedians as well.
I caught up with Carson again in 1962, when he entertained the Retail Bakers at their convention in Philadelphia. By then he had changed from Jack to Johnny to avoid an identity conflict with Jack Carson, the character actor. Some of the bakers were disappointed because another, better-known entertainer had been scheduled, but withdrew. I assured them that they would be happy with Carson. They were. At that time he told me that it was almost certain that he would be taking over the Tonight Show on NBC when Jack Paar retired. That happened just months later, beginning his 30-year run on late night television.
Carson’s impact on network television was profound. He not only changed America’s sleeping schedule, he changed comedy himself, with his own brand of humor — the monologues, the characters he created on his show, and by giving young comedians a chance to perform on network television. His humor was ”kind,” as opposed to some of the “acid” humor of comedians of the ’60s, and “clean,” though his sexual innuendoes often skirted close to crossing the line of “good taste.”
Over his career, Carson met, and interviewed just about everyone in show business, and he counted many of the giants in comedy as his friends. His influence on young comedians and singers was immense, as he could promote or dash the career of a young entertainer simply by extending or withholding an invitation to appear on The Tonight Show.
Along the way, Carson made a great deal of money for himself and NBC. He also made sure that the people who worked with and for him made good salaries as well — his writers, his band, Doc Severinsen — and Ed McMahon.
Ed McMahon was the perfect second banana. He knew his place, as 2nd Fiddle to Johnny Carson, and played that role perfectly for 30 years. “If I was going to play 2nd Fiddle, I was determined to be the Jascha Heifetz of 2nd Fiddlers,” he said. His job was to sell products and to make Carson look good, and he never forgot it. For his efforts, he was paid more than $1 million per year. In addition he was the spokesman for Publishers Clearing House and the host of his own TV shows. Yet, at the time of his death he was broke, and being evicted from his home because he was hopelessly behind on his mortgage payments.
Even in the throes of health problems (cancer) and financial woes, McMahon looked at his situation philosophically. “Even if you have a large income, if you spend more than you take in you’re going to go broke. Those several divorces didn’t help.” It was sad. You hate to see that happen to a fellow who seemed almost like an old friend.
Johnny Carson also went through some bad times. He was generous to three former wives. His outside business ventures were mixed. His line of Men’s Clothing was marginally successful, but he lost heavily in a fast food franchise venture, and he “took a bath” when he invested heavily in the DeLorean car---a futuristic high performance sports car.
In Carson’s case, though, he must have been able to tell the difference between red and black ink on his financial statements, and all Nebraskans are richer for it. During his lifetime he never forgot his roots in Nebraska. When civic leaders worked for a new medical center, Carson donated the money for a fine new, state-of-the-art Carson Cancer Center at Faith Regional Health Services in Norfolk. Among other ongoing gifts, he donated the money for the beautiful Johnny Carson Theater at Norfolk High School. This was the site of the highly successful Great American Comedy Festival, which is held annually in June, in Norfolk. (Also, the Royal NE Zoo asked for, and received, money to buy a chimpanzee for their zoo.)
In November 2004, four months before his death, Carson donated $5.3 million to the University of Nebraska for the creation of a new department, The Johnny Carson School of Theater and Film,” a part of the Lied Center. After his death in 2005 the University received another $5 million from the Carson estate.
Johnny Carson, who was a chain smoker, underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 1999. On Jan. 23, 2005, he died at the L.A. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, of respiratory failure, caused by acute emphysema. He was 79 years old. We miss him.